HELENA, Mont. (AP) – The Montana Supreme Court overturned a man’s conviction for transporting drugs after finding that officers who arrested him violated his constitutional right to be free from searches and searches and abusive seizures.
Tuesday’s unanimous decision returns the case to Custer County District Court, with an order overturning the judge’s ruling that allowed prosecutors to use as evidence the 19 pounds (8.6 kilograms) of marijuana found in the trunk of the car the man was driving.
Officers began questioning Hoang Vinh Pham at a Miles City gas station after watching a Montana Highway Patrol van loaded with 960 pounds (435 kilograms) of marijuana being taken for evidence storage in Billings.
They asked Pham where he had been, where he was going and ultimately asked to search the car he was driving, according to court records.
Before his trial, Pham filed a motion to suppress the evidence. This was denied in October 2018. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2019, the Montana State News Bureau reported.
The judges ruled that Pham likely felt he was not free to leave when questioned by armed officers, and therefore under federal and state constitutions he had been “seized”.
In that case, a Criminal Investigations Division officer approached Pham “solely on the basis that Pham was staring at the abnormal sight of an MHP pickup truck full of marijuana,” Judge Laurie McKinnon wrote.
After confirming that Pham was not lost – he said he was traveling from Butte, Minnesota – or that he had committed an apparent offense, the officer “grabbed” Pham when he continued the conversation and he asked to search his vehicle, the judges wrote.
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